Spirits were high last Sunday at Dark Horse Brewing Co. in Marshall. Beneath a ceiling full of dangling beer mugs, families ate lunch at the high-top tables and couples sat at the bar quaffing craft beer. Owner/brewer Aaron Morse was nowhere to be seen — he had just wrapped up an appearance at the 17th annual Michigan Brewers Guild Summer Beer Festival in Ypsilanti the day before. Otherwise, though, it was business as usual, with one little proviso: In about 48 hours the little brewpub 45 minutes southwest of Lansing would have its national television debut — and with it, lots of curiosity seekers.
“(Management) did tell us we need to start watching our mouths,” said bartender Rachel Goheen. “They told us people are going to start coming in.”
That’s the plan, at least. “Dark Horse Nation,” a half-hour reality TV show set at Dark Horse, debuted Tuesday on the History Channel. Goheen said she’s already noticed the TV show’s advance buzz increasing business a little bit more than usual.
“I work off tips,” she said. “The more people, the better.”
The show could make Morse and his 17-year-old business household names, maximizing Michigan as a setting for TV shows and movies (including AMC’s “Low Winter Sun” and the upcoming “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) as well as the recent explosion of the state’s craft beer scene. But Morse is quick to point out that it’s not all cheers and beers down there in Marshall.
“Brewing beer is pretty boring,” Morse said in a phone interview. “If it was just about that, we wouldn’t have much of a show. (‘Dark Horse Nation’) is more about the personalities of the people who work here. That’s what’s interesting, and I think people are really going to like seeing how we do what we do.”
“Dark Horse Nation” will follow Morse, 39, and his operations crew — including his father, co-owner Bill “Wacky” Morse; head of brewery operations Bryan Wiggs; head of shipping and receiving John “Chappy” Chapman; and maintenance head John “Cabe” Churchill — as they make beer and kibitz on site.
“They filmed a lot over the winter and this spring and summer, so I’m not sure what will be included in the show yet,” he said. “But you’ll definitely see a lot of what it’s like to live (in mid-Michigan).”
The first two episodes show Morse experimenting with a mobile ice shanty on tank treads, Churchill rebuilding “Helga,” the brewery’s 28-year-old bottling system and Wiggs and Chappy on the shooting range. Morse said he was skeptical at first when he was approached about doing a reality show.
“A lot of them seem so fake and scripted,” Morse said. “That’s not who we are at all. If we were going to commit to this, we knew we wanted it to be as real as possible.”
And Morse isn’t known for biting his tongue. A few years back, he famously denied the band Nickelback the rights to use Dark Horse beer in one of their videos, which was going to be set at a frat party.
“That’s not who we are,” he said. “I have no problem with the members of the band. I don’t particularly like their music, but the way they wanted to show (Dark Horse beer) was not they way I wanted it to be seen, so I said no.”
Dark Horse, the fifth largest brewery in Michigan, is distributed in 12 U.S. states and Denmark and produces 17,000 barrels per year. (By comparison, the state’s top brewery, Bell’s Brewery, produces over 200,000 barrels annually.) Morse said expansion plans were already in the works before the show started, but if “Dark Horse Nation” takes off, it could fuel the business’ growth. It will also give the world some (heavily bearded) faces to associate with mid-Michigan.
Cameras started rolling last October. Filming lasted throughout the winter, the most severe in recent memory — so much for adding to the tourist industry. The first season will have 12 episodes, which will air over the next five Tuesdays. Morse said they haven’t been picked up for a second season yet.
“They’re waiting to see how this one goes first,” Morse said. “Hopefully people start talking about it.”
New episodes of “Dark Horse Nation” air back-to-back on the History Channel at 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Sept. 2.
For more information, go to history.com/ shows/dark-horse-nation or darkhorsebrewery.com.
Rachel Harper contributed to this story.